Get ready for this work not only to form your mind

,
but also to touch your heart and soul. I’m afraid we
Catholics take our sacramental life for granted. If you
want a booster shot for a faith in the sacraments that has
become a bit listless, keep on reading. Thanks, Msgr.
Vaghi, for calling us back to the roots of our Catholic
religion, the seven sacraments. You indeed proclaim the
mysteries of our faith.
Most Reverend Timothy M. Dolan

Archbishop of New York

Msgr. Vaghi speaks out of his long pastoral experience
in a way that helps the reader recognize that what is
taking place in the sacramental sign is real. A delight to
read and a joy to recommend.
Most Reverend Donald W. Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington

Msgr. Peter Vaghi’s clear account of the seven sacraments is doctrinally sound, pastorally perceptive, and
spiritually insightful. All who read this book will come
to a greater appreciation of the Catechism of the Catholic
Church, and so deepen their faith in Jesus and their love
of the sacraments he instituted.
Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap.

Executive Director for the Secretariat for Doctrine
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

What a treasure! Filled with reverence; careful research,
and well-rounded, thoughtful questions—who could
ask for more? Msgr. Peter Vaghi has done a great service
for catechetical leaders looking for a summary of the
seven sacraments of the Catholic Church that is practical and pastoral. This volume is a valuable resource for
anyone who wants to understand these mysteries more
deeply.
Carole Obrokta

Director of Religious Education
Archdiocese of New Orleans

This book shows that the sacraments are truly a celebration, a celebration of Christ’s love as real as the love he
showed when he walked the earth. Prepare yourself for
a breath of fresh spiritual air—the heart and beauty of
encountering Christ in the sacraments comes alive in
these pages.
Carl A. Anderson
Supreme Knight
Knights of Columbus

A Catholic Guide
to the Seven Mysteries of Faith

foreword by
Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan

ave maria press

notre dame, indiana

Scripture texts used in this work are taken from The New American Bible
copyright © 1991, 1986, and 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine,
Washington, DC, and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All
rights reserved. No part of The New American Bible may be reproduced in any
form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.
Nihil Obstat: Reverend Michael Heintz, Ph.D.

Censor Librorum
Imprimatur: Most Reverend John M. D’Arcy

Bishop of Fort Wayne–South Bend
Given at Fort Wayne, Indiana, on October 15, 2009

____________________________________
© 2010 by Peter J. Vaghi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any
manner whatsoever, except in the case of reprints in the context of reviews,
without written permission from Ave Maria Press, Inc., P.O. Box 428, Notre
Dame, IN 46556.
Founded in 1865, Ave Maria Press is a ministry of the Indiana Province of
Holy Cross.
www.avemariapress.com
ISBN-10 1-59471-231-X

ISBN-13 978-1-59471-231-9

Cover image © JI Unlimited.
Cover and text design by David R. Scholtes.
Printed and bound in the United States of America.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

Contents
Foreword............................................................................. ix
Preface.................................................................................. xi
Introduction..........................................................................1
1. Sacraments: Transforming Encounters
with Christ........................................................................3
2. Baptism: Gateway to the Christian Life..................18
3. Confirmation: Be Sealed with
the Gift of the Holy Spirit.........................................35
4. Eucharist: The Sacrament of Love...........................52
5. Eucharist: Ever Ancient, Ever New.........................66
6. The Healing Sacrament of Penance.........................83
7. Another Healing Sacrament:
The Anointing of the Sick.......................................100
8. Holy Orders: Apostolic Ministry...........................107
9. Matrimony: It Takes Three......................................124
References..........................................................................141

Introduction

T

his is the second book in a series that looks at
the four pillars of the Catechism of the Catholic
Church: The Profession of Faith, The Celebration
of the Christian Mysteries, Life in Christ, and Christian
Prayer. The first book, The Faith We Profess: A Catholic
Guide to the Apostles’ Creed, examined the twelve articles
of the Apostles’ Creed. In this second volume, we reflect
together on the sacraments.
We begin with an exploration of the sacraments as
transforming encounters with Christ. At the outset, our
focus is on the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist (with two chapters devoted
to this “sacrament of sacraments”). Next, our attention
turns to the two sacraments of healing: Penance and
Anointing of the Sick. We will conclude with a look at
what the Catechism calls “sacraments at the service of
communion”: Holy Orders and Matrimony.
After each chapter there are a number of reflection
questions and a prayer. These resources enable a small
group to gather to reflect together on their faith. The
prayer provided, or any familiar prayer, hymn, or psalm
can be used to open and/or conclude each gathering. Of
course, these resources can also be used personally to
reflect and pray as one proceeds through this process.
The nine chapters will look at the sacraments and
will draw from the great tradition of our Catholic faith
as expressed in the universal Catechism of the Catholic
Church (CCC). Our look at these mysteries will be enriched by references to the recently published United

1

2

Introduction

States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA). We will also
examine the sacraments through the prism of the writings of our late Holy Father, John Paul II; Pope Benedict
XVI; and the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

one

Sacraments: Transforming
Encounters with Christ

H

ow appropriate that the Church made “faith”
the first pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic
Church. For the Catechism is a book about
faith, our faith—the faith of our mothers and fathers. It
is a faith that, whether we consciously admit it or not,
has sustained us throughout our lives—at moments of
new life and at death, at times when we struggle to find
meaning in otherwise meaningless situations, at those
times of lifelong vocational commitments (be they marriage, consecrated life, vowed or ordained ministry),
and all those many moments in between.
Our faith acts, often without our knowing it, as
a lens through which we see the world, embrace the
world, critique the world, and make efforts to live in a
world that can be very challenging. And the Catechism
is about faith. It is about faith seeking understanding,
the mustering of reasons for our hope (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).
It is about recouping a sense of joy in being a Catholic Christian. In faith, there are concrete answers to so
many of our problems and challenges. Contemporary
life need not simply be a continued and endless barrage
of unanswered questions or open-ended confusion.
Christ, after all, is the answer, “the way, the truth,
and the life.” And the Catechism helps us understand
3

4

The Sacraments We Celebrate

how it is that Jesus Christ is the answer to the human
riddle. It helps us see this truth in a systematic and accessible way. The Catechism is a fundamental and organic synthesis of our entire faith, of what we believe
as Catholics. In the words of John Paul II, it is “a sure
norm for teaching the faith.” We continually rejoice—or
we should continually rejoice—in the great and mighty
deeds God has done in order to save us. That is at the
heart of our faith.
How is the Catechism arranged? There are four pillars (or four sections):
l. The Profession of Faith (what we believe, the
creed)
2. The Celebration of the Christian Mystery (the
sacraments, communal prayer, liturgy)
3. Life in Christ (the commandments, how we
live, morality)
4. Christian Prayer (how we pray together and
alone)
This pattern—creed, sacraments, morality, and
prayer—followed the same format as the Roman Catechism that was published in the late sixteenth century
after the Council of Trent. Although following the traditional order, the contents of both catechisms are often
expressed in a new way in order to respond to the questions of our age and our American culture. Our precious
faith is always old and always new.
Although developed in four parts, the Catechism
manifests an interconnectedness among the parts, an
organic structure to the presentation of the faith. Unity
is, after all, an essential feature of the Christian faith.

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

5

Faith must be seen in its totality, not in selected reflections simply on parts that we find congenial, a kind of
“a la carte” Catholicism. The Catechism seeks to build a
synthesis, an organic view of the faith. This is its special
strength.
In this book—the eight chapters that follow—we
will look at the second section of the Catechism, a section titled “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery.”
The corresponding section in the United States Catholic
Catechism for Adults is titled “The Sacraments: The Faith
Celebrated.” Both catechisms treat the sacramental and
liturgical life of the Church. They explain how God’s
salvation, accomplished once and for all through Jesus
Christ in the Holy Spirit, is made present and prolonged
in time and space, in our time and space. It happens in
the sacred actions of the Church’s liturgy, especially in
the seven sacraments. Both catechisms explain how the
liturgy and the sacraments of the Church enable each
one of us to become a real part in God’s plan to save
the world, to draw life from the risen Lord with each
and every sacramental encounter, a life that continues
to transform and change us and make us concrete icons
of the Lord Jesus for the world to see. The teaching we
will study is concrete and not just theoretical. Hopefully, it will answer or at least raise questions that you
might have.

Today’s Challenges
Now in my twenty-fifth year of priesthood, I have
come to appreciate more and more the statement of
the Catechism that “the sacred liturgy [itself] does not
exhaust the entire activity of the Church: it must be

6

The Sacraments We Celebrate

preceded by evangelization, faith and conversion” (CCC
1072). So many of our Catholic people fail to understand
the rich and life-giving meaning of the sacraments, of
the Church’s liturgy—often through no fault of their
own. All the more do we have reason to reflect prayerfully on the sacraments: the sacraments as a whole and
the seven individual sacraments. The Catechism is a
very helpful way to make that study. It is a wonderful
gift of the Church.
The following challenges, however, underscore
some areas of much-needed attention. They come from
my own pastoral experience.
I will always remember a couple whom I helped
prepare for marriage shortly after I was ordained. In
our first session, before talking about the sacrament
of Marriage, I asked them what I thought would be a
fundamental and basic question—what is a sacrament?
Surprisingly, and to my chagrin, the best answer I could
get was: “A sacrament is a gift of God.” When I said that
good weather was also a gift of God, I was met by blank
stares. Together they could name only four of the seven sacraments. They both had gone to Catholic grade
schools, high schools, and even excellent Catholic colleges. I know that, regrettably, this experience of mine
is symbolic of a wider phenomenon in the Church, then
and now. What is most problematic is that the seven
sacraments are distinctively fundamental to the Church
that Christ founded. In fact, their celebration helps define us as Catholics.
As Gerald O’Collins and Mario Farrugia stated
succinctly:
They [the sacraments] are seven privileged
means that have been entrusted to his

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

7

Church by Christ and make his saving work
personally present for men and women until
the end of time. These sacraments are both
perceptible signs (which can be seen, heard,
tasted, touched, and smelled), central means
for the common worship of God, and special
vehicles of grace provided by the glorified
Christ. They confer and strengthen the life of
grace in the particular form that each sacrament symbolizes.
We cannot be discouraged, however, by recent polls
about the number of Catholics who attend Mass each
Sunday. Some polls have said that only 25 to 30 percent
do so. Citing the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism
states that “the Church obliges the faithful to take part
in the Divine Liturgy on Sunday and feast days” (CCC
1389). Our challenge is always to encourage our friends
and family members to come with us to Sunday Mass
and to be with us when our parish family gathers each
week.
Nor can we ignore the reality that the celebration of
the sacrament of Penance has dropped off considerably
in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. There
are hopeful signs of a renewed interest in this marvelous healing sacrament. By way of example, “The Light
Is On for You” Lenten outreach in the Archdiocese of
Washington and the perennial “Come Home for Christmas” outreach in many parishes around the country
have borne fruit.
Also, there are those who fail to consider, before receiving Holy Communion, whether they are worthy to
receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and whether
they should first receive the sacrament of Penance. The

8

The Sacraments We Celebrate

Catechism teaches that “anyone conscious of a grave
sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before
coming to communion” (CCC 1385).
Many Catholics in their twenties and thirties have
not received the sacrament of Confirmation. The Catechism clearly teaches that “Confirmation is necessary
for the completion of baptismal grace” (CCC 1285). Together, Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist constitute the “sacraments of Christian initiation.” Since
the three form a unity, without Confirmation and the
Eucharist, Baptism is certainly valid and efficacious,
but Christian initiation remains incomplete. Along with
Confirmation and Holy Orders, Baptism imprints an
“indelible character” on the soul of the recipient.
It is often unknown that the Anointing of the Sick
(what used to be called Extreme Unction or the last
rites) “is not a sacrament for those only who are at the
point of death” (CCC 1514). It is available for those who
are seriously sick, elderly, or facing a serious operation.
Parents sometimes delay having a child baptized,
using the so-called argument that they will wait to allow the child to decide which faith he or she chooses to
have. They have brought a child into the world. Surely they should also bring their child into the family of
God. The Catechism states: “The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming
a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly
after birth” (CCC 1250).
Not all have learned, moreover, the definition of a
sacrament from childhood: “A sacrament is an outward
sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Or as the Catechism states: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of
grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church,

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

9

by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131).
I would suggest that you commit either definition to
memory if you do not already know it. This is the only
formula that I will ask you to memorize in this entire
book.

The Celebration of the Paschal Mystery
In the pages ahead I will emphasize the special aspects of each of the individual sacraments. In this introduction, I wish to highlight what is common to all of
the sacraments—a celebration of the Paschal mystery of
Christ, of his dying and rising and our encounter with
him in each of the sacraments, each bringing with it
“some particular grace” (USCCA 169).
To understand the concept of sacrament, it is important to understand its biblical roots. The word sacrament, or the Latin word sacramentum, was first used
by Tertullian, a Christian writer who lived in Africa
around AD 200. It is the Latin translation of the Greek
word mysterion. This word mysterion gives us a significant key to the richness of the sacramental and liturgical
life. Commonly translated, it means “mystery.” It is not
a mystery in the sense of an Agatha Christie novel with
complicated plots or clever ploys.
St. Paul uses the word mysterion twenty-one times.
From it the Latin word sacramentum derives. In Ephesians 3:9, he writes of the “plan of the mystery hidden
for ages in God.” In Ephesians 5:32, referring to marriage, he calls it “a great mystery.”
The word mystery means the “work of God.”

10

The Sacraments We Celebrate

The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude
to the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming
mankind and giving perfect glory to God.
He accomplished this work principally by
the Paschal mystery of his blessed Passion,
Resurrection from the dead, and glorious
Ascension, whereby “dying he destroyed
our death, rising he restored our life.” . . .
The Church celebrates in the liturgy above
all the Paschal mystery by which Christ accomplished the work of our salvation. (CCC
1067)
This Paschal mystery—this dying and rising—is a
mystery because it is the action of God. It is a mystery
gradually unveiled and revealed in Christ Jesus. This
mystery is unveiled to those who have been called to
and initiated in the faith—you and me. For those outside the faith, it is still a mystery.
The liturgy, the sacramental life of the Church, puts
us in touch with and lets us share in the hidden, inner (mysterious) life of God, revealed in the words
and deeds of Jesus, most fully in the Paschal or Easter
mystery—his death and Resurrection. Liturgy, from the
Greek leitourgia, means “public work.” In our context, it
means our participation in the work of God—principally in our celebration of his Paschal mystery. Liturgy is
the work of the entire Trinity. “At every liturgy, the action of worship is directed to the Father, from whom all
blessings come, through the Son in the unity of the Holy
Spirit” (USCCA 167). Although the entire body of Christ
celebrates the liturgy, within the assembly, the ordained
person has a unique function of service (USCCA 171).

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

11

It would be a mistake to consider the seven sacraments, those primary liturgical moments in our lives as
Catholics, as isolated events with no link to each other
or no link to Christ and his Church. They are various aspects of the one Paschal or Easter mystery. Each in their
own way, they prolong in time and space the unique
mystery of Jesus Christ, above all his passion, death,
and Resurrection—out of love for us. Through the liturgy, through the sacraments, Christ himself, along with
all he did to save us, is rendered present.
Each sacramental encounter brings us in touch with
the living and risen Jesus Christ, an encounter that
changes and transforms us, that is, gives us grace. It is
God’s unique vehicle for reaching and changing you
and me. The Catechism emphasizes that “for believers”
the sacraments are “necessary for salvation” (CCC 1129).
At the same time, even though God works primarily
through the sacraments, “he also touches us through
the community of the Church, through the lives of holy
people, through prayer, spirituality and acts of love”
(USCCA 170).
Christian liturgy not only recalls the events
that saved us but also actualizes them and
makes them present. The Paschal mystery of
Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the
celebrations that are repeated, and in each
celebration there is an outpouring of the
Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery
present. (CCC 1104)
“He did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb 7:27).

12

The Sacraments We Celebrate

The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves
around the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass and the other sacraments. “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’
from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and lifegiving. They are the actions of the Holy Spirit at work
in his Body, the Church. They are ‘the masterworks of
God’ in the new and everlasting covenant” (CCC 1116).
In Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, he asks a
perceptive question at the outset: What did Jesus actually bring us? He states: “The answer is very simple:
God.” At the end of the book, he states that “man needs
one thing.” He states: “He needs God.” In the sacraments, each of us encounters God. We uniquely encounter the transforming power of Jesus, the Son of God.
To this end, I invite you to contemplate the beautiful
fresco at the beginning of this section of the Catechism.
The early Christian depiction of the woman suffering
from a hemorrhage, who is healed by contact with Jesus’ robe, serves to symbolize the sacramental life of the
Church. To understand this passage more fully, remember that a person with a hemorrhage was considered
unclean, separated from the faith. By her healing, she
became clean and reunited to the faith. So too, the sacraments heal, cleanse, and unite us to the Body of Christ.
They continue in our day the works that Christ had
performed during his early life. The sacraments are, as
it were, “powers that go forth” from the Body of Christ
to heal the wounds of sin and to give us the new life of
Christ. “Jesus’ words and actions during his hidden life
and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery” (CCC 1115).
The sacraments uniquely bring us God and the divine
power.

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

13

In this chapter, I will review the seven sacraments
from a very specific angle. Later chapters will expand
our understanding of the individual sacraments. Hopefully, they will help us see how each sacrament brings us
in touch with the living and risen Jesus, the Jesus who
died and rose out of love for us. Hopefully, we will understand more deeply how each one of the sacraments
brings us, even now in our day, into the dying and rising experience, the Paschal event accomplished by Jesus
out of love for us and our salvation. The sacraments are
transforming encounters. They are not isolated events.
They are a part of one central mystery, mysterion, his
Easter mystery.
The Paschal mystery of Christ . . . cannot
remain only in the past, because by his death
he destroyed death, and all that Christ is—
all that he did and suffered for all men—
participates in the divine eternity, and so
transcends all times while being made present in them all. The event of the Cross and
Resurrection abides and draws everything
toward life. (CCC 1085)
Each sacrament is our transformative share in the
dying/rising experience of Jesus, which is essential for
our salvation.
Baptism: “The person baptized belongs no longer to
himself, but to him who died and rose for us” (CCC
1269). The baptized becomes forever a member of the
living Body of the risen Christ.
Confirmation: The person receives the full outpouring
of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is the Easter

14

The Sacraments We Celebrate

gift given on Pentecost as recorded in the Acts of the
Apostles (2:1–36).
Eucharist: It is the sacrament of sacraments, the memorial, the rendering present of the dying and rising of
Christ, the sacrament that strengthens our union, our
communion, with the risen Christ and each other. It is
a growth in the grace of Baptism that makes possible
growth in the Christian life.
Penance: It is a dying to sin and in the words of the
Catechism “a true ‘spiritual resurrection’” (CCC 1468).
Why? It restores us to the life of the risen Lord by bringing death to sin, healing, and reconciliation.
Anointing: “By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way
he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the
Savior’s redemptive Passion” (CCC 1521). In this sacred
anointing, the gift of “peace” is received from the Holy
Spirit. It gives the recipient the courage to overcome the
difficulties of serious illness.
Holy Orders: The priest acts “in the person of Christ”
as representative of Christ, head of the Church. He is
a vessel for Christ. Christ acts through the person of
the priest. The priest is configured to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, the Easter gift, to serve
as Christ. “The ordained priesthood guarantees that it
really is Christ who acts in the sacraments through the
Holy Spirit for the Church” (CCC 1120).
Marriage: Christ enters a special covenant with a man
and woman who become a married couple. “Christ

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

15

dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up
their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they
have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens“ (CCC 1642). This encounter with Christ
enables couples to give to each other the same kind of
total, free, and selfless love that characterized Christ’s
love on the Cross for us, a deep share in his Paschal
mystery. Referring to marriage as the great mystery,
mysterion, St. Paul compares it, the love between a man
and woman, to that loving relation of Christ and the
Church (Eph 5:32).
Each of these sacraments has consequences for the
Christian life. Each one shapes how we lead our lives
as followers of Jesus. “The saving grace of the dying
and rising of Christ are communicated to us in the Sacraments so that we might live more perfectly Christ’s
truth and virtues such as love, justice, mercy, and compassion” (USCCA 176).
I encourage you to read a part or all of a chapter
each day and make it a part of your daily prayer. Use
the Scripture references as you read. Please do not become discouraged. Our faith is not simply formulas in
a catechism but rather the realities they express. Our
trust in the reality of God does not end with the formal
or material expression of doctrine. It leads us to the personal reality of God proclaimed by that doctrine. At the
heart of this treatment of the sacraments is the mystery
of a living person, the mystery of Jesus Christ. That is
the challenge of the Catechism: to let God help us to
touch him. He continues to reveal himself to each of us
in beautiful ways. In the words of Pope Benedict, Jesus
came to bring us God.

16

The Sacraments We Celebrate

Reflect
1. How does your faith serve as a lens through
which you see the world? How would your
perspective be different if you lacked the gift of
faith?
2. How have you experienced the Paschal
mystery—dying and rising with Christ—in
your own life?
3. Reflect on and share a sacramental moment
when you experienced the presence of Christ in
a personal way.

Pray
Paul’s Prayer
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord
Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ with every
spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation
of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
For this reason I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on
earth is named,
that he may grant you in accord with the
riches of his glory
to be strengthened with power through his
Spirit in the inner self,

Sacraments: Transforming Encounters with Christ

and that Christ may dwell in your hearts
through faith;
that you, rooted and grounded in love,
may have strength to comprehend with all
the holy ones
what is the breadth and length and height
and depth,
and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to accomplish far
more than all we ask or imagine, by the
power at work within us,
to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
—Ephesians 1:3–4, 3:15–21

17

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